On Saturday, thousands of Penn State students walked at graduation.
For one of them, walking at all was a miracle. Finishing college was a journey she was determined to complete.
Paige Raque did what seemed impossible after she fell out of a fifth-floor window at Calder Commons in October 2012.
The fall broke her body in almost every way possible.
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It shattered her vertebrae. It broke her neck. It cracked her ribs and snapped a bone in her lower leg. The impact caused a traumatic brain injury.
“I fractured pretty much everything,” Raque said, smiling and healthy, sitting in her kitchen and cuddling her dog, Toby.
I fractured pretty much everything.
She doesn’t look like someone whose whole body was in pieces just three and a half years ago. But that’s because you can’t see the path she traveled from Calder Commons to the Bryce Jordan Center, where commencement was held.
There were the weeks she couldn’t stand while her body healed. Then, when the doctors told her she could, the girl who had been a Nittany Lions cheerleader really thought she would just get up and go.
Instead, she stood up for 15 seconds and was overwhelmed. It wasn’t just the broken bones. It was the pain of damaged nerves.
“I’ve always been so athletic,” she said. “I thought I would run out of the hospital. Instead, I had to relearn how to walk.”
I thought I would run out of the hospital. Instead, I had to relearn how to walk.
That wasn’t all she had to work on.
For some reason, as she got better, Raque was quiet. She would smile. She would give a thumbs-up. She wouldn’t talk.
“I had so many good speech therapists,” she said.
One of them used the idea of a game show to elicit a response. Her father was floored the first time she said “hi” again.
A Kentucky girl, Raque picked Penn State for family reasons. Her brother Parker was the captain of the gymnastics team. She followed along and joined the cheerleaders.
There was a lot of drinking there. Raque doesn’t like to talk about that.
There were a number of young women charged with supplying alcohol the night of her fall, but Raque doesn’t want to evade her own responsibility or lay the blame on anyone else.
“I’m glad I got out of that environment,” she said.
Does she still have a drink if she goes out with friends? Yes. Does she go out with the idea of drinking the same way she did before her fall? No.
It’s just one of the things that changed when she came back to campus just a year later.
There were different friends. There were new limitations. There were even new goals.
“I had a limp,” Raque said.
She didn’t like it. She worked on it. She got into new kinds of exercise. She challenged herself, but just coming back to State College might have been the biggest challenge of all.
“I was going to leave Penn State,” she said. “I was looking into it.”
But her dad asked her to reconsider.
“He said if you don’t finish what you started, you’re going to regret it,” Raque said.
He said if you don’t finish what you started, you’re going to regret it.
The Penn State community rallied around Raque and her family in a way that surprised them.
“So many people reached out to us,” she said.
Her fall came just a few months after Jerry Sandusky’s trial, 11 months into the roughest year the Penn State faithful ever faced. Raque said she expected backlash for bringing more negative attention.
“That didn’t happen,” she said. There was support on social media, support with letters and support from the university.
President Eric Barron wasn’t at Penn State then, but he said he wasn’t surprised to hear about the community response.
“That’s how people are here,” he said.
Raque will leave Penn State with a bachelor’s degree in communication sciences and disorders. That’s right. She’s going to be a speech therapist, just like the ones who helped her find her voice. Her next stop is grad school at the University of Kentucky, but her goal is clinical work to help as many other people as she can.
Her fall was about 39 feet, shorter than the walk to get that diploma. It broke her body, but it didn’t break her.
I’ve found myself. I’ve grown up. I’m me. I’m my own person.
“I’ve found myself. I’ve grown up,” Raque said. “I’m me. I’m my own person.”